Argentine Contender Dogged by Questions
By LARRY ROHTER
RÍO GALLEGOS, Argentina, May 11 — For most Argentines, the man
who would be president is a cipher, an unknown who seems to have emerged
from nowhere. But here at the extreme southern tip of Patagonia, in the
sprawling, oil-producing province he has governed for the past dozen years,
has built a reputation both for largess and for questionable methods.
Mr. Kirchner, 53, is the clear favorite in a runoff vote for Argentina's
presidency set for May 18. He has packaged himself as a reformer who will
restore the ethical base of the governing Peronist movement and revive the nation's shattered economy through sound management.
Though he is clearly trying to establish a sharp contrast with his rival,
former President Carlos Menem, the few outside analysts who have examined
record here see a more complicated picture.
"Néstor Kirchner is a typical Peronist provincial political boss
whose style of government is not all that different than Menem's," said
José Nun, a political scientist who
is the author of "Inquiries into Some Meanings of Peronism." "He too has amended the Constitution to allow himself to be re-elected indefinitely, subjugated the
courts, removed prosecutors and other officials who do not agree with him and used patronage to build support."
As he campaigns, Mr. Kirchner notes with pride that his province, Santa
Cruz, has the lowest unemployment and infant mortality rates in Argentina.
True to the
Peronist tradition of focusing social programs on the poor, he has also set up an extensive public housing program, which allows families earning as little as $200 a
month to buy their own homes with payments of less than $30 a month.
With revenues from oil and gas, Mr. Kirchner has also invested heavily
in infrastructure. His government has built a network of modern hospitals
consultations and medicine for the poor, a deep-water port to attract the fishing industry, airports to encourage tourism and a network of highways, all without
plunging Santa Cruz into debt.
His detractors argue that the remarkably healthy financial situation
of the remote province is unique, not only because of the oil and gas boom
but also because its
population is sparse — fewer than 200,000 people in an area half the size of France. But his supporters note that other provinces reaped a similar bonanza and then
squandered it and that Santa Cruz had nearly $1 billion in debts when he was first elected.
"It's a question of good management," said Alicia Kirchner, the governor's
sister and the minister of social affairs for the province. "Before 1991,
this was also a rich
province, but the government was in disastrous health until rationality was applied to government administration."
Some of the money, however, has also gone into swelling the state bureaucracy:
more than one-quarter of the provincial government's budget goes to salaries
servants. More than 40 percent of job holders in the province are government employees. They earn the highest average salary among provincial employees in the
country according to a recent study, $521 a month.
"Kirchner's whole government plan is to hand out jobs and other favors
so that he will have a subservient, captive vote," said Omar Muñiz,
a provincial legislator who
belongs to a different faction of the Peronist movement. "In the small towns, people have become afraid to run on our ticket because they fear they will lose their jobs
or suffer other reprisals."
The strongest criticism has come over the way Mr. Kirchner has managed
the revenues flowing from both petroleum production and privatization of
the state oil
company. That money, more than $500 million, was deposited not in Argentine banks but abroad, first in the United States and then in Luxembourg and Switzerland,
raising questions of accountability.
"By law, he has to account for that money, but there has been an absolute
lack of transparency," said Roberto Giubetich, an opposition member of
legislative assembly. "He has never declared to the appropriate organs of state, for instance, how much money is deposited abroad, in what banks, what interest rates
it is earning, or what bonds he has bought or investments have been made."
Mr. Kirchner has spent much of this week out of the country, meeting
with the presidents of Brazil and Chile. But Héctor Icazuriaga,
the speaker of the provincial
legislative and acting governor, defended his ally's 12-year rule as exemplary in its efficiency and openness.
"Néstor Kirchner is a born administrator who has the character
and probity to be president," he said in an interview here. "There is not
a single accusation of
corruption against him in the courts, unlike Menem, who installed and institutionalized corruption as a policy of state in Argentina."
But Mr. Kirchner's opponents here also maintain that he has demonstrated
authoritarian leanings in what they describe as his unwillingness to tolerate
Over the past year, they charge, he has urged his followers to use violence to break up peaceful protests, one against a proposed reduction of provincial retirement
benefits and others outside the offices and private residences of government officials demanding that they resign.
"Everyone thinks he is the messiah, but it's a clan, a gang, that is
in power here," said Manuel León, a retired police officer who is
a member of a group protesting the
pension reform that was recently dislodged from demonstrating in front of provincial government buildings. "Kirchner has his group of enforcers, and they don't
hesitate to beat up even women and children when he incites them to it."
Last year Mr. Kirchner filed a $350,000 slander and personal damages
suit against a local lawyer who had criticized the governor's role in privatizing
a coal mine. The
lawyer, Dino Zaffrani, accused the company managing the mine of pocketing government subsidies while failing to live up to the terms of its contract and says he has
evidence of kickbacks paid to Peronist party fixers loyal to Mr. Kirchner.
"The provincial government has to control these things, and it hasn't,"
said Mr. Zaffrani, who represents the mineworkers and is also a vice president
of the provincial
bar association. "Citizens have the right to an opinion and to criticize public servants, but Kirchner is trying to intimidate me so that no one else will dare to criticize
Mr. Zaffrani and other critics also complain that courts and prosecutors
routinely refuse to act on complaints of corruption and arbitrary government
Kirchner has successfully amended the Constitution here to allow himself to pack the provincial Supreme Court with supporters, to run for governor as many times as
he wishes and to revise the electoral code to favor his slate of candidates, but his supporters deny any sinister intent.
Mr. Icazuriaga, the Parliament speaker, argues otherwise. "This is not
a fiefdom," he said. "What you see here in Santa Cruz is not authoritarianism,
but the effective
exercise of power, and that is a very different thing."